Can Sandy Pope Revive the Teamsters?

Can Sandy Pope Revive the Teamsters?

Concessionary contracts and lingering corruption have sapped the once-mighty union.


It seemed like a deal that was too good to be true.

In 2006, as International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) general president James P. Hoffa fought for re-election against dissident Tom Leedham, he waved an agreement before the membership that signified progress for workers in the freight sector as well as those at the union’s largest employer, the United Parcel Service. UPS had recently acquired Overnite, a freight company at which the Teamsters had failed to get union recognition, becoming UPS Freight. Hoffa had a pledge from UPS that it would not interfere in a card-check, virtually ensuring unionization. The membership, although tired of organizing losses at other nonunion companies like FedEx under Hoffa, handed him another term.

What members did not know at the time was what UPS would get in return. The collective bargaining agreement reached the next year allowed the company to pull out of the Central States Pension Fund, shifting unfunded liabilities onto the other employers. The union’s second-largest retirement fund was now in jeopardy; even with the company putting in $6.1 billion before departing, it was left 30 percent underfunded.

“You cannot have a pension fund with a huge ratio of retirees to actives,” explains Local 805 president Sandy Pope, the New York City Teamster leader who is running against Hoffa in the general election that begins in October. “You’ve got to feed it with fresh blood, but for so many years pension funds have been relying on investment return because the market was always going up and no one ever dealt with the issue of cash flow.”

That wasn’t the only problem. Pope and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the dissident caucus that backs her candidacy, allege that union representation at UPS has steadily weakened since Hoffa trumpeted the deal and that the parent union has ignored major grievances, such as subcontracting. The Teamsters have also agreed to give major freight companies breaks in pension contributions, and the union has reached three separate concessionary contracts with shipping and freight giant YRC since 2008. Disgruntled members point to other losses. In 2008, after a protracted strike, the 200-plus members of Teamsters Local 200 working at Waste Management Inc. in Milwaukee reportedly agreed to a contract with diminished pension benefits. And in the Northeast, Pope says, Teamsters have watched their leadership stand relatively idle as C&S Wholesale Grocers leave warehouses for new, nonunion facilities, and she notes that the international did not aid her local’s uphill organizing drive at the grocery-delivery service FreshDirect.

There was a time when the Teamsters called the shots in the hauling industry. (Recall the joke, How many Teamsters does it take to screw in a light bulb? Twelve. You got a problem with that?) Now the 1.4 million–member union has shed its street-fighting image and is focusing its efforts on Washington in hopes that legislative action rather than shop-floor organizing can force giants like FedEx into unionization. But as Pope tells it, Hoffa, elected president in 1998 and re-elected twice, betrayed the positive aspects of his father’s storied presidency—the mobilization of the membership and the founding of viable pensions—and is unable to confront the corrupt elements that led to Hoffa Senior’s downfall.

Pope is a militant unionist with a national reputation for bargaining hard with employers. “If I take over, you’re going to be looking at strikes and civil disobedience and job actions and sit-ins. This is going to have to be a civil rights movement,” says Pope, whose 1,200-member local represents distribution workers. “When you have leadership that is stuck in the Beltway mentality and spends too much time with management, this kind of stuff just doesn’t occur to them.” Under her administration, she vows, the IBT would take a more active role in helping smaller locals fight employers who demand major concessions and in organizing the nonunion businesses that are threatening the survival of major Teamsters employers.

When the international union under Hoffa has helped with local organizing, Pope says, it has taken on the top-down Service Employees International Union model, which forces employers into a card-check; although efficient in boosting union membership numbers, it turns the union into something like a third-party insurance agency. “When you do it so easily—you just sign a card and that’s it, and you hand it in and then make it count— there’s no effort,” Pope says. The workers “don’t own it.”

* * *

Pope’s indictment is that the mixture of failing to protect pensions and organize at the local level has reduced the once mighty union to a passive state. At the same time, the ghosts of criminal infiltration haunt the membership. In 1999 Hoffa hired Edwin Stier, a former New Jersey prosecutor with a track record of fighting institutional corruption. Stier’s housecleaning effort went well until April 2004, when, according to him, Hoffa refused to act on evidence of mob influence at several large locals in Chicago where TDU factions were also mounting election campaigns. Stier resigned. “My impression is that what happened was, the heat just got too intense; a decision was made right at the top to shut it down or curtail it, and control what I was doing,” Stier says.

The Teamsters are still overseen by the Independent Review Board (IRB)—established by a 1989 consent decree—consisting of three appointees, one by the union, one by the Justice Department and one mutually agreed upon. The board is charged with finding corruption and forcing the union to take action. But dissidents see it not only as a scar on the union’s image but also as a toothless mechanism, which most recently became a TDU talking point with Boston’s Local 82. Last September Hoffa put the Southie-based local, which represents area trade-show workers, into trusteeship after the IRB revealed documents showing years of leadership the Boston Herald described as relying on “nepotism, strong-arm tactics and the hiring of ex-cons.” But, as the TDU claims, Hoffa’s designee, Dennis Taylor, continued to allow members of the ousted leadership to coordinate convention hiring. “They’ve relied on the IRB to police the union,” Stier says. “I haven’t seen any evidence that the union has taken serious responsibility for doing that itself.”

The feeling among dissidents is not that Hoffa is acting nefariously but that he is not courageous enough to confront friends and allies who might be part of the problem. “It’s not Hoffa meeting with mobsters; pension fund money is beyond their control,” says Ken Paff, the TDU’s national organizer. But, he argues, “you’re so tied up into a corrupt culture. You have this culture of protecting each other.”

Hoffa will have sizable advantages in the election. Affiliates whose members are not party to national bargaining agreements have little interaction with the IBT and its politics, so many members either won’t be involved or will be less motivated to educate themselves about the election. “The power of the incumbency in the Teamsters is great, because of the patronage system and the notoriety, and the ability of the Teamsters leader to make it seem that any of the criticism of the union is weakening the union,” says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University.

Hoffa, as it is widely known, is labor movement royalty. His father, who disappeared in 1975 and presumably was killed by mobsters, was as known for his underworld connections as he was for his tenacity in battling employers and securing decent salaries and working conditions for Teamsters. In addition to banking the positive memory many Teamsters have of his father, the president claims gains of his own, even recent ones, despite the recession. In March he trumpeted a tentative contract for the 5,000-plus Teamsters mechanics and United Airlines. Chaison says, “Hoffa knows how to get re-elected by showing that he’s an experienced leader and this is not the time to change horses.”

It is precisely this question of who’s “experienced” that gets Pope fired up. “Hoffa never ran a local,” she says with an air of astonishment. He “never was steward, never was a business agent,” she adds. “What qualifies him? Because he was a low-level lawyer someplace?” Pope jokes that she and Hoffa—who spent twenty-five years as a labor lawyer in Detroit—should have a truck-driving competition, and she ticks off her past job titles and union duties, as if they were blue-collar merit badges shadowing Hoffa’s white-collar comfort. “I started as a selector in a food warehouse,” she says. “I hauled steel. I hauled sand. I hauled freight. I drove across country. I drove city. I’ve loaded trucks. I know exactly what’s going on.”

Neither Hoffa nor his press aides agreed to an interview, but there is an anti-Pope website that implies her local has lost a lot of money on her watch, in part because she’s used union funds to finance personal travel to warm-weather destinations. One thing the writers have found egregious is that Pope has taken two trips to Las Vegas in the past year to meet Teamsters leaders. Pope responds that it is common for local leaders to attend national meetings. Unions often meet in Las Vegas because it has a lot of relatively cheap union-run convention centers and hotels. “We were expected to go,” she says. “We all complain that they keep having these meetings that are not very productive.” Pope concedes that her local lost money, but retorts that this was primarily because the parent union was unwilling to support an expensive organizing campaign at FreshDirect. She believes the flimsiness of the recent attacks is reason to be optimistic.

Publicly, Hoffa ignores his opposition (Fred Gegare, a longtime Hoffa supporter on the executive board, defected and is running for president as well). His campaign website doesn’t mention Gegare or Pope, and since becoming president he has never participated in a public debate, dissidents allege. In 1998 Hoffa explained that he did not want to take part in a debate because it would give name recognition to candidates who didn’t deserve it. His public stance on the matter has changed slightly over the years. He did not take part in a candidate debate in Milwaukee in March, according to the TDU, but asked if his running mate, Ken Hall, could stand in for him. Hall backed out, claiming an urgent business matter. It’s a sign of the Hoffa administration’s uneasy relationship with union democracy, Pope argues, adding that in the lead-up to the 2006 election, Hoffa delegates left the room en masse during the nomination process when reform members began nominating candidates.

Pope is undeterred by the claim that a local leader doesn’t have the experience to run a vast continental organization. “All locals are structured the same, whether you have 1,200 or 10,000,” she says. “It comes down to, How many people are you supervising? I bargain all the contracts that are in this local. I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve been doing it in the international for warehouses, so I’ve handled master bargaining, and that’s the critical experience of a union leader.”

Pope has been able to cultivate former Hoffa supporters, like Howard Spoon, president of the 17,000-member Local 371 in Rock Island, Illinois. “She fears no one,” he said in a phone interview. “You can bring in the toughest lawyers the corporates have got, and she can go toe to toe with them.”

But is this industrial union ready for a female president? Even though Pope often faced discrimination on the job early in her career, she thinks that fears that members won’t vote for a woman are overblown. And Spoon says, “If you look back over the last twenty or ten years, women [in the Teamsters] have been more recognized on talent and ability.” Even Chaison, who is betting on Hoffa, admits, “I think the Teamsters would be willing to be gender blind. They’re really looking for someone who has experience and shows grit.”

In an age when American industry—and union membership—is shrinking, the Teamsters have a built-in advantage over other industrial unions: most of their jobs can’t be offshored. It might make sense for a manufacturing union to cave on management demands because of fears that factories could be shipped abroad, but no such threat exists for the Teamsters in their bargaining with UPS. Of course, becoming more militant has its risks, and companies can still win against a strong union. Pope said, “Either you’re going to go down with the ship because you’re too set in your ways to change, or you get out there and say, Yes, I’m going to take risks. I’m going to involve members. I’m going to involve officers.”

If Pope takes power, increased militancy among the rank and file mixed with the turbulence of the transition may inflame passion against her. So be it, she says. Given today’s unprecedented attacks on labor from the right and inadequate help from the Democrats, those headaches may be well worth the trouble if it returns the once mighty union to its former glory.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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